Airstrip fence issue arise again

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 12, No. 14            April 11, 2002

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After more than six years, the fence erected on airstrip property remains a matter of contention and action continues in San Pedro over what to do about it. This week, Civil Aviation Director Efrain Gomez visited the island to make an onsite assessment of a building currently under a "stop order" to cease construction, filed by the Ambergris Caye Planning Committee (ACPC). According to sources at the ACPC, a "temporary" building was approved for short-term office and storage space. When informed of a more permanent building under construction in its place, an ACPC investigation led to a stop order on the grounds that the building was being erected too close to the airstrip, and contrary to Civil Aviation regulations. The owner of the property could not be reached on Tuesday for comment.

    Civil Aviation Director Gomez explained this regulation as a series of measurement formulas designed for safety. According to the director, at the "lateral" position this building is located, the building code states for every one-foot of height the building is erected, there must be a minimum five feet of clearance between the structure and the edge of the airstrip property line (fence). Simply translated, if the contractor wants to build a one-story, 15-foot high building, there must be at least 75 feet of space between the structure and the fence (15x5=75). Mr. Gomez informed The San Pedro Sun that the formula adjusts according to which area of the airstrip the property is located. Following his observation of the building, Mr. Gomez will present a follow-up report to the Minister of Works Henry Canton.

    Providing some background on the situation, Mr. Gomez stated a 1993 survey determined the need to move the airport, but government found the project too costly. Instead, a decision was made to widen the runway and eventually the fence was erected which began an internal conflict between government and the Belize Airport Authority (BAA), and the property owners.

    Similarly, in February of this year, while investigating claims by another property owner, Mr. Jim Smith, the San Pedro Sun discovered this ongoing dispute over San Pedro airstrip property. Two months later, it is obvious some type of contention remains over this fence, erected to create a "buffer zone" between the airport's landing strip and the subsequent pieces of property affected by it. Interviewing Enrique Hoare of the Belize Airport Authority (BAA) at that time, he stated a meeting was being arranged for the BAA to meet with the Ministry of Natural Resources. It could not be confirmed whether that meeting ever took place.  

    This week another letter was received stating the number of agencies and individuals Mr. Smith has contacted and has yet to receive a response from. After more than six years of paying property taxes on a piece of land which he claims the government illegally confiscated two-thirds of it when they erected the airport fence, Jim Smith wrote another letter to San Pedro Mayor Alberto Nuñez. This letter stated, "if for some reason this matter cannot be settled soon," he intends to retaliate by launching a campaign on the Internet to make people aware of this situation when they wish to purchase land or invest in Belize. This information would include the possibility of the Government of Belize arbitrarily confiscating property without the owners' knowledge, consent or financial compensation. Mr. Smith further stated "the buck stops here," and ended by saying this "money making, land grabbing scam has got to come to an end."

    Several attempts to speak to Mr. Enrique Hoare of the BAA this week proved fruitless. The BAA is a "statutory body" responsible for airport property, separate of government, but which reports to government. A portion of the property in question was included in a land acquisition by the Belize government, printed in the Government Gazette in October of 1971. A phone call to the Commissioner of Lands found him out of his office on Tuesday.

    The question remains, whether the government or BAA is responsible for compensation to owners. The disputed property was surveyed twice by the BAA, most recently in 1999. According to Mr. Hoare, the boundaries listed on the last survey need to be certified by the Ministry of Natural Resources before it can be decided if compensation is owed to any property owner or if the fence should be moved.
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